The Foreign Service and American Public Opinion

In May 2020, RAND researchers fielded a series of questions on attitudes about recruitment, priorities, and challenges affecting American diplomats to a nationally representative, probability-based sample of 2,026 Americans ages 24 and older. Respondents were participants in RAND’s American Life Panel (ALP). In June 2021, the researchers re-surveyed 1,829 of the same panel participants asking the same questions, with some wording modifications.

Between the two ALP surveys, RAND researchers led 14 online focus groups to ask 118 representative Americans more-detailed questions about the reasons for their views on American diplomacy and diplomats. Focus group members were not taken from the ALP and were balanced by gender, demographic category, education, and region.

The Researchers found generally favorable public opinion attitudes toward American diplomats but also found limited understanding of what diplomats do, how they are selected, and how diplomacy interacts with other elements of America’s national security establishment. Survey respondents and focus group participants considered support for American citizens abroad to be a core — and much valued — function for diplomats. Survey respondents and focus group participants were less aware that diplomats abroad have export promotion and business support responsibilities. The authors found worrisome levels of opinion that American diplomats, while trustworthy, were politically biased. The finding that the American public had greater confidence in career ambassadors than political appointees also implies that the public would support reduced politicization of State Department positions. Finally, there was a clear preference for diplomats to lead in foreign policy, as opposed to military leaders.

Key Findings

  • Impressions of diplomacy and American diplomats were generally favorable.
  • Of the major functions of diplomats that were presented, survey and focus group participants were most aware of helping citizens abroad.
  • Survey respondents identified understanding of global affairs and negotiating skill as the most important skills for diplomats.
  • Most survey respondents (61 percent in 2020 and 55 percent in 2021) had no opinion on whether they considered American diplomats to be representative of American society. Of those with opinions, in 2020 a slight majority considered diplomats to be representative of American society. This changed in 2021, with a statistically significant 8-percent increase (and a majority) of those indicating that diplomats were not representative of American society.
  • Focus group participants organically raised the issue of feeling less positive about the effectiveness of political appointees versus career diplomats.
  • About half of survey respondents had no opinion on whether they considered American diplomats to be trustworthy or politically biased. Among those with opinions, the majority considered diplomats to be both trustworthy and politically biased.
  • A strong and consistent majority in the surveys (over 65 percent) thought that diplomacy contributes to national security.
  • More than 40 percent of survey respondents in both years said that it was better for diplomats to lead efforts abroad than the military.
  • When asked whether spending on foreign affairs should be more, less, or about the same, survey respondents indicated a preference for keeping spending about the same, with relatively more support for cutting than adding to funding in 2020.

Research: The Foreign Service and American Public Opinion

– Michael S. Pollard, Charles P. Ries, Sohaela Amiri

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